by S. Winters
The darkness ahead mirrors a past of ruin.
New Zealand’s Ulcerate are a band who need no introduction. They’ve been releasing material since 2003, and each album has only furthered their reputation as one of the most forward-thinking and innovative groups in modern death metal. Stare into Death and Be Still, the three-piece’s upcoming sixth full-length record, once again solidifies their status among the greats. Each member of Ulcerate is at peak condition on Stare into Death—the instrumentation seen here is yet another step up from the group’s 2016 masterpiece, Shrines of Paralysis. Song structures are less sprawling, but no less explorative. This new record finds Ulcerate having refined their discordant formula. The above quote, taken from the album’s title track, aptly describes Stare into Death’s position in Ulcerate’s discography. We have witnessed a past of ruin, and this new, dark offering mirrors that past.
Stare into Death finds the Ulcerate trio’s songwriting in its most distilled and focused form. Since The Destroyers of All, the band have woven complex and meandering musical tapestries; a listener could rarely guess which route the music would take at any given moment. Rarely was any regard given for convention or traditional structure. In contrast, however, Stare into Death’s songs are each organized according to a rigid framework. It’s a damn good framework, too, and this newfound approach to song arrangement only further strengthens Ulcerate’s sound. Gloomy, striking melodies play an essential role in creating Stare into Death’s mature tone. Even though Ulcerate has already established their classic status, this new album sees them pushing further toward tech-death perfection, making equal use of harmony and disharmony, chaos and order. As listeners, we cannot help but fall into the murky yet clarified depths of Stare into Death.
Jamie Saint Merat has been Ulcerate’s drummer since the band was founded. In many fans’ eyes, most of the band’s previous material positioned his tasteful and ruthless percussion at the forefront of Ulcerate’s music. On Stare into Death, Merat blasts through tracks as skillfully as ever, and his selection of fills exhibits a developed sense of restraint. Fluttering hi-hat work on “There Is No Horizon” and a splashy groove on “Drawn into the Next Void” stand out as some of his most distinctive drum work. However, Merat’s drumming does not eclipse Michael Hoggard’s guitar on Stare into Death. Hoggard has taken his past releases’ foundation of textured dissonance and added a fresh element: haunting, depressive melody. The poignant guitars work closely in tandem with Paul Kelland’s thundering bass. Paul, as the band’s bassist and vocalist, simultaneously molds the lower end of Ulcerate’s sound and inserts his weathered growl only when appropriate. Kelland distributes his vocal passages more sparsely than on previous records. His enunciation has improved, and his tone is further polished. No Ulcerate member is disposable to the overwhelming totality of Stare into Death.
As Ulcerate listeners have grown to expect, Stare into Death’s lyrics are cryptic, and their vocabulary is extensive. According to the band, the lyrics take influence from the band members’ experiences with the nature of death. Often, we seem to experience spikes of death and calamity; a death in the family or a local natural disaster can distinctly mark our lives. Ulcerate see things differently on this album, however. Verses like “Bow before your doubt within the prison of a frail shell” and “Embrace the condition of hopelessness from eminence that will never be” obscurely describe an oft-observed axiom: death is eternal, and we are powerless to affect its continuity. To death, human beings are inconsequential. We can only spectate—or, perhaps, venerate—the ceaseless presence of death. The album’s title sums up its thematic focus.
Death metal veterans Ulcerate have crafted an enormous record with Stare into Death and Be Still. Its towering, doom-laden instrumentals and darkened crystalline production furnish the ideal platform from which to discuss the bleak but impartial truth of perpetual death. All eloquence aside, this album is great. It speaks to the core of the human condition. Listen to it.
Stare into Death and Be Still releases on CD and 12” vinyl via Debemur Morti Productions on April 24th, 2020 (preorder here digitally, here in Europe, and here in North America). You can also stream it in full over at Revolver.